In memoriam: Geza Ifju, professor emeritus of wood science and forest products
Geza Ifju, professor emeritus and founding head of the Department of Wood Science and Forest Products in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, has died at his Blacksburg, Va., home at the age of 83.
Ifju joined the university faculty in 1964, built a career in wood science and education, and led the department for 22 years. He taught a dozen different courses, from the introductory to the graduate level, and advised undergraduate and graduate students.
“He helped develop the department as one of the top wood science programs in the world,” said Bob Smith, associate dean and current head of the department, which has been renamed sustainable biomaterials. “Geza grew the department from four faculty members in 1979 to 15 faculty members when he retired in 2001. We have one of the largest undergraduate programs in North America and our doctoral graduate students are on the faculties of most of the major programs in North America.”
“We — the university and our students, past and future — were very blessed to have a man of Geza’s vision and energy here for so many years,” said Paul M. Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Dr. Ifju was an accomplished, first-class professional as a teacher, researcher, and administrator, and a special person in the lives of many. We will miss him dearly, but he made his mark that will live on a long time. He made a difference.”
Born in Hungary, Ifju began his forestry education at the Forestry College in Sopron, Hungary. Despite being a top student, he was forced to leave school in 1951 because of his father’s criticism of the political system. He worked as a plumber at an oil field and spent two years in a forced labor camp.
During the 1956 Hungarian revolution, many students defied Soviet occupation and sent medicine, food, and other supplies to Budapest where fighting was concentrated. When the resistance movement failed, they were forced to flee to avoid punishment by the communist government for their humanitarian efforts. Many made their way to universities around the world.
Ifju eventually made his way to Canada where the University of British Columbia had adopted 200 students and 14 faculty members from the Forestry College in Sopron. Ifju earned his Bachelor of Science degree in forestry degree with honors from the University of British Columbia in 1959.
He earned a master’s degree in wood technology from Yale University in 1960, a doctorate in wood science from the University of British Columbia in 1963, and was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California conducting research on fiber technology before joining the faculty at Virginia Tech.
A high-energy person, Ifju advanced quickly as he conducted research and wrote books and articles on topics such as how to use wood from southern-pine-beetle infested forests, the structural characteristics of wood, behavior of wood adhesives at interfaces, improvement of wood preservative testing, and more. He remained active in research and continued to co-author articles after his retirement.
Ifju chaired the planning committee for a new forest products research center at Virginia Tech and raised funds for what became the Thomas M. Brooks Forest Products Center, and then divided his time between the center and his department on campus. He also helped establish the Commonwealth Center of Excellence in Wood Science and Technology at Virginia Tech.
“Geza was an esteemed colleague,” said David Smith, professor emeritus of forestry and Ifju’s colleague since they were young faculty members. “He was a no-nonsense person who was determined to have people do their best work and to have the best resources for his students, faculty, and staff.”
“We worked together in about every facet of the administration of the School of Forestry and Wildlife, which later became the college,” Smith continued. “Geza was always willing to do any work necessary, work with anyone, and would listen, compromise, and move forward. He pushed, but he also had a disarming sense of humor. At the end of the day he would never turn down an opportunity for some socializing.”
Ifju held leadership positions with the Forest Products Society and served as president of both the Forest Products Society and the Society of Wood Science and Technology. In 1990, he was elected Fellow of the International Academy of Wood Science. After retirement, he served as editor of the Society of Wood Science and Technology Journal.
When he retired, alumni and industry friends gave generously to the Geza Ifju Scholarship in Wood Science and Forest Products in honor of his tremendous contributions. The scholarship is awarded to a student who exemplifies professional and leadership promise for the forest products industry.
Ifju was a member of honorary societies in research, forestry, and agriculture. He was finally awarded an honorary doctorate degree from what was then known as the University of Forestry and Wood Sciences in Sopron, Hungary, in 1990. His international activities included being the keynote speaker on two occasions at his would-be alma mater.
He was active on behalf of education programs in his community and church, including chairing the resettlement committee for a Vietnamese family. He coached sandlot soccer and Virginia Tech varsity volleyball.
Ifju is survived by his wife, Beth, their seven children, and nine grandchildren.
A celebration of Geza Ifju’s life will take place on Sunday, June 8 at 6:00 p.m. at the War Memorial Chapel on the Virginia Tech campus. Family and friends will gather at the University Club afterwards.
To donate to the Geza Ifju Scholarship in Wood Science and Forest Products Fund, email Emily Hutchins or call 540-231-8859.